Instrumental Characters: Sarah DeLappe's Orchestral Playwriting

In 2014, at the ripe age of twenty-three, Sarah DeLappe sat down in her Brooklyn apartment and wrote a full-length play in just three weeks. Four years later, it was a finalist for the 2017 Pulitzer Prize. “When I wrote The Wolves, I wrote it thinking it would never see the light of day because it wasn’t a commission—I was just writing it for myself,” says DeLappe. “A play with ten characters, all women, nine of whom were minors—I just figured no theater would ever touch it.” Little did she know that over the 2017-2018 season, she’d see upwards of twenty productions of The Wolves across the United States.

Growing up in Reno, Nevada (“Pronounced Neh-VAH-dah, not Neh-va-dah”), DeLappe was in many ways a typical bright child: a total bookworm, a soccer player from about 10 to 14, a self-described “mediocre musician” learning and quitting instruments every few years. She was also a twin, which is a major reason she loved acting in the school plays: “There was something about looking exactly like this other person and always being mistaken for another person that allowed me to have a sort of malleable sense of my identity, that led me to be drawn to performance.” Raised by two creative parents—her mother is a photographer and poet and her father is a visual artist—DeLappe was never a stranger to the process of art-making. But her relationship with performance would not manifest as a playwriting career until halfway through college.

It happened during a class with Paula Vogel that “was something akin to a religious awakening.” It was a community class taught in a basement; her classmates included retirees and local professionals in addition to fellow students at Yale. Her eureka moment was realizing that anyone in that motley crew could be a playwright, including her: “Somehow I think it hadn’t occurred to me that a playwright was something a person could be. I think I sort of assumed they were all dead or male or—I don’t know. Taking that class changed how I thought about live performance, writing, stages; it gave me a wholly new language, really, for understanding playwriting. And after that class I knew that’s what I wanted to do and had to do—write plays.”

Of course, the discoveries didn’t end there. As DeLappe set out to write The Wolves, she found the characters’ voices landing on the page in a way that felt simultaneously strange and natural to her. She describes it as akin to an orchestral score, in that she heard each character in her head as “nine different instruments in one orchestra, so I knew when I needed to hear this person more or when that person would level up. It’s why the play is formatted the way it is.” She is referring to three columns on each page of her script, which signify three spaces for overlapping dialogue throughout the play: “There’s a main column on the left with the major conversation and then other columns that pop up next to it with sub-conversations.” For at least half of the play, the two side columns are blank; a single conversation dominates. But the rest of the time, all bets are off—three girls might be discussing their social studies homework while one splits off to ask another for a tampon, or two tease one for something she said earlier that day, or someone asks where the sleepover will be this Friday. “That’s like a music score to me,” says DeLappe.

The Wolves is DeLappe’s first fully produced play, but she’s been a force in New York’s playwriting community for several years. Since graduating in 2012, she has been a member of the Clubbed Thumb Early Career Writers Group, the New Georges Audrey Residency, SPACE on Ryder Farm, and the Sitka Fellows Program. She was also included on The Kilroy’s 2015 list, a finalist for the 2016 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, and the co-recipient of the inaugural Relentless Award, which awards the largest annual grant in American theater to an unproduced play. She is currently a resident writer at The Playwrights Realm and LCT3, as well as a member of Ars Nova Play Group. Amidst all this, she’s been completing her MFA in playwriting at Brooklyn College for the past two years. “This last year in particular has been crazy,” she laughs.

As for what’s next? “I’m writing a couple of new projects, but they’re all in stages too early to discuss.” To supplement her writing process, she has also set a goal for herself to learn more about classical music, which she hopes will give her new insight into ways to structure voice and story in her plays. “I’m trying to reverse-engineer it—I’ve got this sense of what it means to orchestrate, but if I go backwards through the basics I’m hoping I’ll learn more about what I’m doing with my scripts.” In the meantime, the music of The Wolves will play on stages across the country this season, including Studio’s Stage 4.

—Victoria Gruenberg